A man who caused a three-car crash while driving under the influence of cocaine on Interstate 88 near Naperville, and later settled with a woman severely injured in the crash, cannot be reintroduced into the woman’s lawsuit to diffuse responsibility from other defendants in ensuing litigation, a state appeals court has ruled, rejecting assertions the driver’s DUI conviction indicated his actions that caused the crash were intentional, rather than merely negligent.

According to court documents, Daniel Rodriguez caused the 2013 crash when he made an illegal U-turn on I-88, crashing into a vehicle headed in the opposite direction and causing a tractor-trailer following that vehicle to collide with it as well. The passenger in the struck vehicle was severely and permanently injured, and sued Rodriguez, as well as Karl Browder, the driver of the tractor-trailer, and others. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of aggravated driving under the influence of drugs and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He also settled with the injured woman for $20,000, the limit of his insurance policy.

Illinois First District Appellate Court
Illinois First District Appellate Court

Browder, his employer, the owner of the tractor-trailer and their insurance companies also sued Rodriguez for contribution, and appealed the trial court’s decision to dismiss him from the original suit after he settled with the plaintiff. The court also barred any claim for contribution from Rodriguez’s co-defendants, though it did allow them the right to credit the $20,000 toward any future judgment against them.

Their appeal focused on the trial court’s finding that the settlement was entered in good faith. The co-defendants argued that Rodriguez’s actions were intentional, not negligent, and that the court failed to consider their rights as defendants, who should be considered less than 25 percent at fault for the crash and the woman’s injuries.

In an opinion issued Jan. 17, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court cited case law that states a settlement is not in good faith if the settling parties engaged in wrongful conduct, collusion or fraud, which it said did not happen in this case. It also pointed out that settlements “are not designed to benefit non-settling third parties.” Quoting the 1996 Illinois Third District Appellate decision in Muro v. Abel Freight Lines Inc., the court wrote: “If the position of a non-settling defendant is worsened by the terms of a settlement, this is the consequence of a refusal to settle.”

The co-defendants argued the trial court should have taken their rights into consideration before granting the good faith finding. To support this contention, they cited a section of the Code of Civil Procedure that states a plaintiff cannot receive full nonmedical damages from a plaintiff found to be less than 25 percent responsible for her injuries.

The appellate justices, however, shot down that argument, saying that section of the code addresses apportioning damages after trial, and does not apply to a settlement agreement.

The co-defendants argued that Rodriguez’s guilty plea to criminal charges is evidence that his actions were intentional, rather than negligent. While a finding that the acts were intentional would prevent a good-faith settlement, the court was not convinced that was the case. Justices said they did not believe the case law the co-defendants cited addressed the base question: Whether a finding of good faith can be barred for intentionality if the claim is brought through a counterclaim instead of by the plaintiff herself.

“We need not and indeed cannot make the determination that the Browder co-defendants seek based on the facts before us,” the appellate court wrote. “A counterclaim is ‘an independent cause of action, separate from a complaint.’”

The opinion was authored by Justice Michael B. Hyman, with justices P. Scott Neville Jr. and Mary Anne Mason concurring.

According to Cook County court records, Browder and the other co-defendants were represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Cuisinier & Farahvar Ltd., of Chicago.

The plaintiff in the original lawsuit was represented by the firm of Morici Figlioli & Associates, of Chicago.

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